Construction on the long-awaited Columbia pedestrian bridge is set to begin on Sept. 5, with the project expected to be completed late November, County Executive Allan Kittleman announced on Monday.
The bridge, which connects the Oakland Mills village to downtown Columbia, will be upgraded to transform the current cage-like structure into a shell-like structure with upgraded lighting and a security system that will allow the Howard County Police Department a clearer vision of the area.
The Stevens Forest Road entrance to the bridge, as well as a section of the path on the west side of Route 29 leading to the bridge, will be closed for the duration of the project, according to a statement from Kittleman. In addition to the bridge closures, portions of Route 29 will have periodic single-lane closures and shifts as construction continues.
Many people rely on the bridge as a way to get to work, Oakland Mills Community Association Vice Chairwoman Kay Wisniewski said. The county is offering free bus passes for the RTA route between the Oakland Mills Village Center and downtown Columbia as one alternative for those who will have their route blocked for the next few months.
The county also suggested residents use a bus route along the Seneca Drive bridge and download the carpool app Carpool Now to help find a ride.
Wisniewski said the upgrades to the bridge will help attract more young people to Oakland Mills and that the project fits into the larger plan to revitalize the village.
"The bridge itself is critical to our plan for redeveloping Oakland Mills," she said. "It takes advantage of Oakland Mills' location, which is unique among the Columbia villages as a gateway to downtown. You can walk across that bridge and be downtown in five to 10 minutes."
Oakland Mills Village Manager Sandy Cederbaum said the community association has been working closely with the county to get the word out about the different route options available while the project is underway, particularly reaching out to Spanish- and French-speaking portions of the community to make sure they're aware of the changes.
"We are so close to downtown, we want to capitalize on that, for people to feel comfortable to come to Oakland Mills," she said.
While Wisniewski said ultimately what Oakland Mills really needs is more public transportation options, the bridge is a good step for attracting more people to the area.
"We'd like public transportation but this new design is cool. And when you can add that little coolness quotient it makes a big difference," she said. "And then when we want to lobby for some kind of public transit, we'll have a much bigger voice."
Greater public transit in the area has been talked about for several years, led by the group Friends of Bridge Columbia, who want to see the bridge widened to allow for public transportation, pedestrians and cyclists. Howard County Transportation Administrator Clive Graham said the county is actively considering different ideas for how to bring more public transit to Oakland Mills, but that a transit-only bridge is probably not the most feasible option; the current bridge is not wide enough to fit buses so an entire new bridge would be needed.
Other proposals, such as creating bus-only lanes on Route 29, would give buses an advantage on current roads, according to Graham.
"Yes, the county would like more transit, but the question is, what's the best way to do it," Graham said. "It's going to always be cheaper to use existing roads."
Reach Kate Magill at email@example.com.